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Gloomy Russians Looking Awkward at the Beach

June 22nd, 2009

Liz Hand closed her summer reading LJ post the other day with an ironical apology for the absence from her list of any Proust, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky. What means this? thought I, who happened to be reading Anna Karenina. I’ve heard of War and Peace referred to as the end-all antithesis of mindless beach reading. And I have no doubt at one point or another performed similar pseudo-intellectual self-flagellation with Crime and Punishment. But I didn’t exactly pick up Anna Karenina for that purpose—it was more just one of those spur of the moment things, at a loss for reading material before a bookshelf assembled for other tastes than my own. And you know, I don’t actually feel particularly oppressed by it. Granted, I haven’t attempted to get anywhere in the book while using it as a sun-shield on the beach. But for someone who reads as slowly as I do, it actually has been flying right by. No comparison to Dostoevsky, really, either for the bleakness of the material or the density of the prose. It might even be easier to decipher than somebody like Jane Austen, who among ye classic 19th century novelists is much more likely to be stereotyped as a beach reading option.

I’m not very well-versed in Tolstoy. I’ve read “The Death of Ivan Ilych” a few times, which strikes me as being much more tongue-in-cheek satirical than Anna Karenina, more influenced by Gogol. The main intent in Anna Karenina, rather than sending up the ills of a society as a whole or attacking its hypocrisies, seems to be to illustrate, in painstaking nuance and verisimilitude, the series of core character types and variations on the core that make up society and cause it to function as it does. So we get a lot of extensive, internal character sketches, an incredible number of and an incredible willingness to shift between POVs. The elements of plot and conflict seem very deliberately designed to provide opportunities to show us these characters in all possible lights and from all angles. Which I guess makes it less titillating, less of a page-turner, than say a Pride & Prejudice or Crime & Punishment, if either of those works can be said to possess any such quality. But it also means reading Anna Karenina requires less vestedness from the reader, allowing it to be picked up and laid aside with surprising carelessness. And since what I’m reading for isn’t the next twist in a gothic romance, but rather the next facet of a wise and exhaustive survey into human nature, I feel much freer to dally and skim as suits the moment and my mood. So—not your typical summer reading in the usual sense, but for me, at least, it works really well.

My favorite parts are the occasional, brief tidbits of generalization Tolstoy interjects to explicate a character action or tendency we have just been shown, but which in almost every case can be applied with equal ease to every situation ever encountered, in real life or in fiction, among people of the type being discussed. Because Tolstoy is just that perceptive.

This, for example, is the reaction of the tortured, true artist Mihailov to the idle hobbying of the bored, wealthy Count Vronsky. One of the bitterest instances I’ve come across, but I like it.

He knew that Vronsky could not be prevented from amusing himself with painting; he knew that he and every other dilettante had a perfect right to paint what they liked, but it was distasteful to him. A man could not be prevented from making himself a big wax doll, and kissing it. But if the man were to take his doll and go and sit down in the presence of a man in love, and start caressing his doll as the lover caressed his beloved, it would be distasteful to the lover. Mihailov had just such a feeling of distaste at Vronksy’s painting: he was amused, irritated, sorry, and affronted.

I’m pretty sure I’ve been on both ends of that feeling.

   HM, Reading | No Comments »

Satyricon

May 25th, 2009

Titus Petronius Niger, the man scholarly consensus seems to agree is the author of the scandalous, fragmentary narrative of debaucherous and decadent abandon known as the Satyricon, was a consul in Nero’s senate in AD 62; subsequently, he became something akin to Nero’s personal social director, granted the unofficial title “Arbiter of Elegance”. Tacitus, in his Annals, describes Petronius as a man who treated idleness as his profession, “one who made luxury a fine art”. “In the end,” says Tacitus, “Nero’s jaded appetite regarded nothing as enjoyable or refined unless Petronius had given sanction to it.”

In AD 66, after a rival poisoned Nero’s affections against him, Petronius made effort to flee Rome, was thwarted, and so decided to preempt his likely torture and execution with suicide. He threw an extravagant dinner party, during which he opened his veins and bled himself slowly to death to the accompaniment of feasting, wine, music, satiric poetry, and pithy conversation.

There’s a dude who stuck to his principles.

I think I’ve been aware of Petronius as a historical figure for a while, but had until not so very long ago considered him among the ranks of Machiavelli, the Marquis de Sade, and Nero himself: egomaniacal pretend intellectuals championing amorality for no other purpose than to further their own fame—the people who brought us Charles Manson.

I have to admit, though, that hedonism, at least in a watered-down form, has gained a certain abstract appeal for me. Pseudopagan pantheism does seem to lend itself to a philosophy of pleasure. And the ideas involved do have a great deal of practical relevance for me, if not necessarily as a human being, then as a writer. What with the centaurs and all.

So I’ve been reading the Satyricon—in a used Penguin Classics edition, translated by J.P. Sullivan, which is a lot of fun in that it couches all the homoerotic innuendo and hypermasculine grandstanding in the terms of stiff-upper-lip 20th century British slang. And it really is a pleasure. The characters are actually quite reasonable people, even wise, in their approach to their debaucheries. As a window on the culture and period, it’s utterly fascinating, an unplumbable resource. And the parallels with modern culture—and by extension, with human culture across geography and era, whenever a society has passed its peak—are just astounding. For example, certain passages—street chases and a vicious love triangle between two men and a boy—remind me very much of the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. The wealth of pithy witticisms evoke Oscar Wilde, the party scenes Rabelais. Even the scene structure and pacing seem to prophesy a good few thousand years into the future.

All these parallels with later stuff are so numerous and engrossing, it took me awhile to realize that the Satyricon also looks a lot like a prose reinterpretation of the epic poetry form. There are nested stories, comparisons to the exploits of gods and legendary heroes, and points at which the narrative is temporarily arrested for a long soliloquy on aesthetics or philosophy—though, in the case of the Satyricon, such soliloquies are as likely to be about the etiquette of sharing a nubile youth among a roomful of older men as about the death of art.

In short, I highly recommend it to anybody with the capacity for patience and detachment necessary to look past all the gorging and fondling and see the Satyricon for the solid gold it is. If you appreciate the centaurs, I think you’ll be as fascinated by it as I am.

To close, a piece of ageless wisdom on the plight of the struggling writer from Eumolpus, the Satyricon‘s sexpot poet:

‘No doubt about it. If a man sets his face against every temptation and starts off on the straight and narrow, he’s immediately hated because of his different ways. No one can approve of conduct different from his own. And secondly, those who are interested in piling up money don’t want anything else in life regarded as better than what they have themselves. So lovers of literature are sneered at by whatever means possible to show that they too are inferior to wealth.’

   Centaurs, Hedonism, HM, Reading | 3 Comments »

For Crying Out Loud

April 28th, 2009

Get Small Beer Press books for $1. $1!

Kalpa Imperial, Magic for Beginners, Generation Loss—these are %@!$ing phenomenal books. I feel guilty promoting this sale. They are worth more than that!

But what can I do.

   News, Reading | 2 Comments »

Show Not Tell

April 20th, 2009

I just stumbled onto possibly the best object lesson in showing, not telling in fiction I’ll ever get.

In 2005, I wrote a story called “Hope and Erosion”, about a kingdom living in a sandcastle threatened by the rising tide. It was the second story I’d ever sold, to a Christian fantasy e-zine called Dragons, Knights and Angels. I was very proud of it at the time. At the time, it was the best story I’d ever written.

In 2004, all unbenknownst to me at the time, Jeffrey Ford wrote a story called “The Annals of Eelin Ok”, which was published in Datlow and Windling’s The Faery Reel, and won the Fountain Award for that year (and on whose website it can still be read for free). It’s based on the exact same premise: a tiny, fantastical being living out his life in a sandcastle made by human hands. His story is way better. I just listened to it on a Podcastle show from a couple weeks back, read by Rajan Khanna, who may be my new favorite podcast reader—his voice is understated, quiet and calm and eminently listenable, but somehow capable of hitting just the right emotional notes with the strength of a clapper striking a cathedral bell. It almost made me cry.

Here’s the lesson: everything about a story is more powerful when you’re experiencing it right there with the character. “Hope and Erosion” is told like a parable. Hermit, the hero, is a hero in the classic fairytale sense, the way Sir Gawain is a hero, or the Red Cross Knight. Which is fine, but there’s no understanding that kind of hero as a person. He’s away up there on the pedestal of myth.

Eelin Ok is a fairy, but he’s a person. His whole life is there on the page, his heart is open, and you’re in it.

I suppose this lesson may work better on me than on you, gentle reader, since you may not have had the luck to have written the exact same story as Jeffrey Ford. But if you feel so inclined, you might could get a similar effect if you read the two stories side by side.

Read the Jeff Ford story, anyway, if you haven’t. It’s awesome.

   HM, Reading, Writings | 3 Comments »

What the hell is a sun machine?

March 9th, 2009

This question occurred to me thanks to the shuffle switch on my ipode, which, on a long, lonely drive through Vermont in a wet snowstorm, presented me, all out of context, with “Memory of a Free Festival”: the distantly trippy, elegiac-in-the-face-of-joyful, seven-minute final track off David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Ostensibly, it’s a jangly-organ folk ballad celebrating free love and boundless hippie optimism, with a hint of the wonderful irony for which I so love Bowie:

We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn’t, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day

But all that stuff trails off around the three minute mark, and for the final four minutes we get a wild cacophony of toy-piano tinkling, trombone-kazoo-clapping and distant fairy laughter, over which Bowie and a chorus of euphoric voices chant, over and over:

The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party

Which I presume we are to interpret as a return to our regularly scheduled glammed-out alien space messiah Bowie. Take the green acid so when Ashtar and the Aquarians get here, they’ll know you’re one of the enlightened and you’ll get to ride off with them on the crystal ship.

Goofy velour pantsuit cliche notwithstanding, however, this was kind of a revelatory moment for me. Growing up, I had a completely different association with the term “sun machine”, based on a Percy Hill song of comparable epic length, but a very different aesthetic: a white boy jam-band soul-funk anthem, which goes like this:

I don’t care if the world may end
I’ll be just fine inside my sun machine
I cannot say my friends
when I’ll put down this foolish game
I hope it never ends
And time will never tell

Hallucinogens and benevolent alien abductions? Yeah, maybe. But that’s not what I thought at the time. I always assumed it was a reference to Ray Bradbury. In Dandelion Wine, a loving suburban husband, father of two, and inventor cribbed straight from the American Dream, sets out to build a Happiness Machine in his garage, basically a phone booth full of visions of everything you most desire. It nearly destroys him and his family.

His wife was quieter now. “Leo, the mistake you made is you forgot some hour, some day, we all got to climb out of that thing and go back to dirty dishes and the beds not made. While you’re in that thing, sure, a sunset lasts forever almost, the air smells good, the temperature is fine. All the things you want to last, last. But outside, the children wait on lunch, the clothes need buttons. And then let’s be frank, Leo, how long can you look at a sunset? Who wants a sunset to last? Who wants perfect temperature? Who wants air smelling good always? So after awhile, who would notice? Better, for a minute or two, a sunset. After that, let’s have something else. People are like that, Leo. How could you forget?”

But Dandelion Wine is about time and memory and regret, not neon angelic visions. In 1957, when Bradbury wrote it, LSD existed and was legal, but I don’t think it was nearly the pop phenomenon it would have needed to be for Bradbury’s readership to get the reference–particularly in the context of the half-remembered halcyon summer 1928 suburbia of the novel.

So I don’t know. Maybe there’s no connection between Bradbury, the Bowie song, and the impossible dreams of my youth.

Or maybe, just maybe, this is another one of those monumental metaphors that has always been and will always be waiting somewhere in the back of every human consciousness, waiting around for the dawn or the re-dawn of the industrial age so it makes sense again, waiting for somebody to write a song or a story to invoke it so it can share its universal, esoteric wisdom with the world.

Because I go and google “sun machine” and look: there’s a band, three different albums by three other bands, a computer company, a german heating company, and look, even a grandiloquent hoax perpetrated at the 1904 St. Louis World fair, all operating under that name!

Jeez, I wonder if everybody else is referencing this thing?

Wouldn’t that be cool.

   HM, Monumental Metaphor, Music, Reading | No Comments »

Building Blocks and Knitting Needles: Little, Big Again

February 16th, 2009

I’m having one of those afternoons where everything I’m made of seems to come apart and lie there spread out on the carpet for me to rummage through like plastic pieces from three dozen different building block sets I’ve been accumulating since I was three. And the turning world rolls a sunbeam across the whole angular mess and up the wall and then gone, and I sit here trying to get back to what I was doing—writing, trying to get the legos back up into their towers and buttresses and balustrades—but all I can do is keep pulling them down, turning them over, thinking This is what I am.

So I’ve been reading Little, Big. Probably not the safest thing to be doing in this kind of mood.

Some books are so good they drive me back to the blank page with sticks and lashes, shouting, “You can do this, you have to do this, do it!” Other books, better books even than that, make me stare at the page and feel the world rusting, shouting, “You’ll never do that.” This afternoon, Little, Big seems to have made its way into a third, still more rarefied and elite subcategory, whose members, if I really wanted to depress myself, I could probably count on two hands: books that are a distillation of existence—of everybody’s existence, but of mine in particular—books that maybe happen to come at the right time and be about exactly the thing that occupies me at that moment in my life, or else maybe they’re always like that for everybody, because they are what life is about. Books that seem to know me better than I do.

“Kill the fatted calf,” Momdy said, the only one there to whom the phrase would have occurred. “And fricassee it.”

Every few pages, something like this leaps right up off the page and stabs me with a white-hot knitting needle. Then there’s a lull, a chance for me to catch my breath and quiet my bawling. Then it happens again.

They stared at each other wildly, all questions, no answers; and at the same moment saw that. Smoky clapped his hand to his brow. “But how could you have thought I… that I… I mean wasn’t it obvious I didn’t know…”

“Well, I wondered,” Auberon said. “I thought maybe you were pretending. But I couldn’t be sure. How could I be sure? I couldn’t take a chance.”

“Then why didn’t you…”

“Don’t say it,” Auberon said. “Don’t say, Why didn’t you ask. Just don’t.”

“Oh, God,” Smoky said, laughing. “Oh, dear.”

Auberon sat back on the floor, shaking his head. “All that work,” he said. “All that effort.”

This stuff is taken out of context, obviously, which probably deprives it of the power to do whatever it’s doing to me. Consider yourself lucky. But I suppose the force of the impact comes from that it’s archetypal and it’s real at once. It’s saying something universal, using ancient forms, but doing it simply and intimately, without barely even having to draw on the ancient or the universal at all, because it’s been building up a mountainous reserve of all it could ever need for the past four hundred pages.

This is why novels win over short stories in the end. On most any other day, I never would admit that. There are many, many short stories I’ve read that fit into tier one and tier two: they drive me to write, they drive me away from writing, they drive me back. But in tier three—I don’t want to have to count what’s there on my two hands, and I hate to admit it—but none of them are short stories.

I guess I just thought I’d gotten past the point where this kind of thing could bite me. Thought I’d taken enough classes in psychoanalytic theory and read more than enough fantasy and metaphysics and aged enough to make me immune.

Not so.

   HM, Reading, Writings | 6 Comments »

Mother West Wind's Children

February 2nd, 2009

I’ve been meaning to read Little, Big for a very long time. The only reason I hadn’t gotten around to it sooner was a misguided foreboding of immense depth and complexity that made me feel like I needed to be prepared for a challenge of such magnitude or I’d run out of steam halfway through. Because it’s Crowley, and I’ve read Crowley and heard him speak (even performed at a reading with him once!), and because everything I’ve heard about Little, Big makes it out to be such a towering monument among the literature of the fantastic, I was expecting to have to psych myself up to read it in the same way I would do for ye densest of literary classics, The Brothers Karamazov or Don Quixote.

Not so at all, it turns out. The prose is inviting rather than forbidding, yet none the less challenging or beautiful because of it—much more like, oh, I don’t know, Great Expectations set in that house where the Pevensie children discover the wardrobe, or Dunsany as written by John Steinbeck. It’s an intensely human story, using the influence of faerie on a little American town as a metaphor to explain the cause of all the heartbreaking flaws and limitations of human nature and the human condition.

There were no answers, none. All that was within the power of mind and speech was to become more precise in how the questions were put. John had asked her: Do fairies really exist? And there wasn’t any answer to that. So he tried harder, and the question got more circumstantial and tentative, and at the same time more precise and exact; and still there were no answers, only the fuller and fuller form of the question, evolving as Auberon had described to her all life evolving, reaching out to limbs and inventing organs, reticulating joints, doing and being in more and more complex yet more and more individuated ways, until the question, perfectly asked, understood its own answerlessness. And then there was an end to that. The last edition, and John died still waiting for an answer.

Yes! Yes. These massive semicolon-linked behemoths of sentences are exactly the kind of thing I want and strive for, the kind I get scolded for attempting all the time—not because such sentences are in any way inherently wrong, no matter that a certain kind of reader, lacking in the self-psyching-up skills, would argue that’s the case—but rather just because I don’t know how to do them right. Or so I tell myself.

How does Crowley make them work? How can he fill page after page with these forbidding monster riddle-sentences and somehow manage to end up with a prose style that is both lyrical and inviting? Maybe it has to do with the subject matter. Is it possible to write about love and existential sadness set against idyllic summer countryside in a way such that reading it doesn’t feel like coming home? Maybe not.

Because then I come to Book Two, titled “Brother North Wind’s Secret”, and a bunch of schoolchildren passing around a book of woodland stories written by their town’s patriarch, John Drinkwater. And around page 135 or so I begin to realize I am reading an homage to Thornton W. Burgess. Burgess was a naturalist children’s author from Cape Cod whom I read far too much of between the ages of eight and twelve: sort of a warmer, fuzzier Aesop, with talking animals learning wise life-lessons in the course of their daily efforts at survival, and teaching us something about the natural world as they go. I suppose he was very formative for me. I remember particularly my third grade reading teacher once scolding me for showing up with about the twentieth Burgess collection I’d read as a proposed subject for a book report. She wouldn’t let me do it, and so I left that phase behind and moved on to more grown-up books. And probably haven’t thought about Burgess since.

What Crowley does with Burgess is use him as a sort of secret passage to the reader’s childhood sense of magic. Little, Big is very much about lost childhood, about the slow compromises we make to replace the pieces of our childish understanding of the world as they fall away. Here’s a little bit of a Burgess story featuring Brother North Wind (from this online archive of his collected works:

The leaves of the trees turned yellow and red and brown and then began to drop, a few at first, then more and more every day until all but the spruce-trees and the pine-trees and the hemlock-trees and the fir-trees and the cedar-trees were bare. By this time most of Peter [Rabbit]‘s feathered friends of the summer had departed, and there were days when Peter had oh, such a lonely feeling. The fur of his coat was growing thicker. The grass of the Green Meadows had turned brown. All these things were signs which Peter knew well. He knew that rough Brother North Wind and Jack Frost were on their way down from the Far North.

Peter had few friends to visit now. Johnny Chuck had gone to sleep for the winter ‘way down in his little bedroom under ground. Grandfather Frog had also gone to sleep. So had Old Mr. Toad. Peter spent a great deal of time in the dear Old Briar-patch just sitting still and listening. What he was listening for he didn’t know. It just seemed to him that there was something he ought to hear at this time of year, and so he sat listening and listening and wondering what he was listening for. Then, late one afternoon, there came floating down to him from high up in the sky, faintly at first but growing louder, a sound unlike any Peter had heard all the long summer through. The sound was a voice. Rather it was many voices mingled “Honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk!” Peter gave a little jump.

Endings and sadness and onrushing death—but with a cozy sense of as-it-should-be. Now, here’s Crowley reinterpreting the same sort of story:

‘Good Morning, Mr. Crow,’ the Meadow Mouse called out, feeling quite safe in his snuggery in the wall.

‘Is it a good morning?’ said the Black Crow. ‘Not many more days you’ll be saying that.’

‘Now that’s just what I wanted to ask you about,’ the Meadow Mouse said. ‘It seems that a great change is coming over the world. Do you feel it? Do you know what it is?’

‘Ah, foolish Youth!’ said the Black Crow. ‘There is indeed a change coming. It is called Winter, and you’d better be prepared for it.’

‘What will it be like? How shall I prepare for it?’

With a glint in his eye, as though he enjoyed the Meadow Mouse’s discomfort, the Black Crow told him about Winter: how cruel Brother North-wind would come sweeping over the Green Meadow and the Old Pasture, turning the leaves gold and brown and blowing them from the trees; how the grasses would die and the animals that lived on them grow thin with hunger. He told how the cold rains would fall and flood the houses of small creatures like the Meadow Mouse. He described the snow, which sounded rather wonderful to the Meadow Mouse; but then he learned of the terrible cold that would bite him to the bone, and how the small birds would grow weak with cold and tumble frozen from their perches, and the fish would stop swimming and the Laughing Brook laugh no more because its mouth was stopped with ice.

‘But it’s the End of the World,’ cried the Meadow Mouse in despair.

‘So it would seem,’ said the Black Crow gaily.

I just love the contrast between these two passages. Even looking back at the first Crowley passage, you can see how his prose is informed by Burgess, the simplicity and repetition, the narrative voice, even the mood. But even when he’s playing the children’s storyteller, those monster sentences don’t go away. I would argue they work here to convey a sense of breathlessness, of urgency, both in the story itself and the lesson it’s meant to convey. But the difference that strikes me most between the two is that in Crowley’s version, the inherent wisdom of the animals has been taken away. Peter Rabbit knows that winter’s coming; he knows what to do, because that knowledge was born in him. Not so for the Meadow Mouse–because he isn’t an animal, not really. He’s us. A captive audience. He needs the story, because without it he’ll never know how to survive.

Crowley never finishes this story. The mouse goes looking for the secret of Winter, asking every animal he meets. They all have their own answers, but none of them will work for him. And before we can find out if he survives, the schoolchildren stop reading.

If I could make that kind of point with that much grace, well, maybe I could write long-ass sentences too.

   HM, Magic Realism, Reading | 4 Comments »

The Sleeping King and the Madman at the Gates

January 26th, 2009

Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection isn’t actually out yet officially, but I have had the great good fortune to read it in advance.

It’s one of those rare books that does everything I want a book to do. Normally I need to be reading at least three different things at once to satisfy my reading moods: something stylistically complex and challenging whose prose I can pore over like poetry in the morning over a cup of tea, something factual and obscure about the nature of belief or the evolution of consciousness that I can resort to in the middle of the day when I ought to be working and write off as “research”, and something with an engrossing story and lovable characters I can pick up and get lost in before falling alseep. The Manual of Detection provides all those things. The jacket copy seems satisfied referring to it as a surrealistic detective story, but to me it almost seems to be carrying secondary-world fantasy around, hovering just above its shoulders like an invisible umbrella. It is meticulously structured, ornate and beautiful and inexhaustibly inventive—a page-turner, mindfuck, and cozy all at the same time.

Miss Palsgrave looked down at him. In the dark he could see only the dull gleam of her eyes. “The sleeping king and the madman at the gates,” she said. “On the one side a kind of order, on the other a kind of disorder. We need them both. That’s how it’s always been.”

   HM, Reading | No Comments »

Things to Crow About

November 9th, 2008

Jay Ridler’s story “Blue Harvest” is up in the November 2008 issue of the online horror zine Nossa Morte. And it is awesome. Prose honed to a point you could play records off of. A story worth learning from.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, the new online magazine of literary adventure fantasy, has started doing podcasts. The first one is Yoon Ha Lee’s rich and decadent “Architectural Constants”.

Benjamin Parzybok, whose debut novel Couch I got to read while it was still in production at Small Beer Press (and which is so mindblowingly cool I wish I had written it), is doing a New England reading tour. I get to go see him November 20th at Amherst Books.

I suppose I could crow about Obama, too… but I won’t. Not that I’m not overjoyed he got in, and that he’s getting a cute little mongrel shelter puppy for the white house… but I see the results of the ballot in California, the smarmy self-congratulatory smiles of pundits, and I just can’t believe everything’s suddenly going to be all right. 15 billion a year for energy research? How much are we spending per day in Iraq? Has anybody ever bothered to calculate the carbon emissions of a bunker-buster? Feh.

Hem. Sorry. Not trying to ruin it for anybody. It’s a good thing I have fiction, or I’d be a hard person to live with.

   News, Reading | No Comments »

Small Beer Press Sale

October 2nd, 2008

Free Kelly Link ebooks, new (awesome) Joan Aiken collection, proceeds to benefit the not-Bush.

   News, Reading | 2 Comments »

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